Nobody in Saskatoon knew quite what to make of Joni Mitchell's comments about race so they ignored them. But however well-intentioned, the words got Adele Weder wondering.
Most famous people seem to have an aura of majesty about them, so that the very air they stroll through seems to part as they walk. Such was the case when Joni Mitchell wafted into Saskatoon's Mendel Art Gallery last Friday to launch her long-awaited exhibition of artwork.
The street in front of the gallery was blocked off to traffic and city officials fretted about how to contain the impending masses. The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix had front-page banner headlines the morning of the opening: "Mitchell-Mania Takes Over"; "5,000 expected at opening." People were happily preparing to queue for hours to see Joni on opening night. Even the New York Times had flown in a correspondent. Clearly, we weren't in Kansas anymore.
We journalists - paid witnesses in the event - hunkered around one of two doors to the main exhibition space, steno pads in hand, mild thrill of anticipation keeping us awake. One reporter was even wearing a flak jacket: "Ya never know," he grinned. Finally, somebody whispered, "There she is!" and we watched Mitchell stroll through the gallery's main doors, her helpers and hangers-on beside her, an aura of majesty surrounding her. At 57, she still looks great - stylish, healthy, sexy in an unstudied way. She was 20 minutes late, but, as Holden Caulfield said, if your date's late but she looks terrific when she gets there, who cares? Nobody.
Mitchell vanished behind a door but re-emerged a minute later, right into our scrum. An intimate media moment? Alas, no - she had only come out in search of the ladies' room and as she banked sharply to the right and escaped through a doorway, the television crew awkwardly lowered their cameras, and the reporters put back their steno pads. It was as though we were momentarily flustered that stars, too, have bodily functions. But we mortals do tend to treat celebrities as a kind of subspecies distinct from the rest of humanity. It probably has something to do with the strangeness of seeing a media-familiar face right there, in real life. In the case of Saskatoon hometowners (and even emigrees, such as myself), it has something to do with living in a city where no one famous lives. Whatever the case, when Joni Mitchell came to town, we spent loads of effort preparing to genuflect.
She's serious about her painting. A lot of the works in the show are pretty good, although not of the calibre a solo retrospective at the well-regarded Mendel would ordinarily be. But what churl would quibble with that? We've been taking this in a certain spirit: as an insight into her music, and as a fun, local-girl-makes-good show. She's a brilliant songstress, she's hugely famous and - best of all - she's here, in our humble hometown. Thanks to her, even The Hollywood Reporter now knows about the existence of a city called Saskatoon. Sure, she's long since moved away to a much different life on the west coast, but then so have a lot of us. And even if we moved away because we couldn't stand a hometown's limitations for one minute longer - well, so what? We can move away but we can never really leave. So when a young local reporter asked her if she considered this a homecoming, and Joni said, with gusto, "Absolutely, it's a homecoming," we hometowners felt warm and fuzzy.
The tender moment was shattered right afterward, when the same reporter asked what strings she still had to the prairies. Mitchell lashed out angrily, "If you'd looked at the show, you wouldn't ask that question!"
Actually, none of us had seen the show yet, but no one just then had the temerity to say so. "I'm sorry," whimpered the novice reporter, as she crawled off to a corner to lick her wounds. Off to the next question.
We found out that Mitchell got interested in art when she played at Fred Mendel's house as a kid. It was a case of bourgeois-bohemian fusion one doesn't ordinarily associate with the prairies: the future artist's soul set afire by the paintings collected by the owner of the city's giant meatpacking plant, who went on to bequeath his art and a good deal of money to the gallery that now bears his name. She told us about how mysterious figures come out in her work, especially during a week of fever-induced delirium. She spoke of how a cat peed on one of her paintings done at Georgia O'Keefe's house, and how if you look at it closely you can see the yellow patina. She spoke of aboriginal spirituality.
Then came the real head scratcher: "If the 20th century unfolds as I hope it does, the four major races will begin to coerce and understand their contributions to the greater whole; that intellect - whitey's contribution - will be put in its proper perspective. And emotionality of the black race - the end they hold up - will become an equal to it. The clarity of the yellow race, and the sensitivity and the depth of the red race will all be used by all, that we'd all borrow from one another. That's my dream."
Well, of course she meant the "21st" century, and she didn't really mean that the races have to be coercive to get along. Still, it's tempting to smell a Freudian slip in this old-fashioned world view, where races are pigeonholed by their inborn characteristics. This was something that Ontario's dubious race-accessing professor Philip Rushton could have said.
Whatever she meant none of us dared to ask for an elaboration. Nor did anyone report her dream in the next day's papers. ("It was over my head," explained one reporter.) But the local media did bask in the singularity of it all. "Just a Hometown Girl," bannered the Star-Phoenix. They led off with a line about how Jack Nicholson and Neil Young didn't show up, which just proves how much she is one of us. They talked about her prairie roots. They quoted her on prairie pride - "I'm a flatlander, period." After all that, there wasn't a whole lot of space left for a discussion of the art. But they did report on her complaint that her cat peed on one of her paintings. Clearly, she's still one of us after all.